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UNC Asheville connected on six of its first eight field goals in building an early 13-11 lead, but North Carolina (3-2) ratcheted up its defensive pressure to hold the Bulldogs to 8-of-27 shooting and used a 17-6 spurt to grab control. UNC entered the locker room holding a 44-31 advantage and increased that margin to 55-33 only minutes into the second half.
The Bulldogs managed to close the gap to 70-64 with 5:09 remaining, but were unable to get any closer in dropping their second game of the season.
Tyler Zeller led North Carolina with a career-high 23 points and also grabbed seven rebounds, while Harrison Barnes scored 13 points and pulled down seven rebounds. John Henson delivered his third double-double in five games with 10 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks, while Justin Knox added 10 points and eight rebounds.
J.P. Primm paced the Bulldogs with 21 points on 8-of-16 shooting (4-of-8 from 3) and Matt Dickey contributed 15 points, four rebounds, three assists and three steals.
North Carolina shot 46.6 percent (27-of-58) from the floor, while holding UNC Asheville to 37.0 percent shooting (27-of-73, 6-of-21 on 3-pointers). The Tar Heels committed 19 turnovers while only forcing 10. UNC outrebounded the Bulldogs, 51-32.
INSIDE THE GAME
Reoccurring Mental Lapses
It only took 66 seconds into the fifth postgame press conference for Roy Williams to offer up his first noteworthy quip of the season.
"If I live through this team, I think we're going to be a heck of a lot better at the end of the year, and there is a big question if I'm going to live through it," Williams said.
When asked the reason behind that comment, Williams responded: "You just watch the game – you guys are smarter than that… You can't make those kinds of mistakes, take those kinds of shots."
To say that North Carolina's victory over UNC Asheville was smooth and pleasing to the eye would be rather dishonest. The Tar Heels committed 13 turnovers in the first half alone, fueled by an out of control transition game.
"We had fast breaks in the first half that we looked like we had never practiced a fast break in our life," Williams said.
Dexter Strickland committed three of his four first-half turnovers by throwing the ball away in transition.
"With me, I was trying to do too much, making silly passes," Strickland said.
Williams pointed to defensive lapses and rebounding as the root of his frustration. UNC allowed the undersized Bulldogs to pull down 13 offensive rebounds and get too many open looks that ultimately didn't fall.
According to Strickland, Williams spent an extended amount of time after the game talking to his team about the mental lapses and how they allowed UNC Asheville to cut its deficit to six points late in the game.
With North Carolina holding a 70-59 lead with 6:03 left to play, the Tar Heels' next five possessions included two turnovers, a missed 3-pointer, a missed 18-footer and a missed fall-away from 12 feet. During that same stretch, Dickey failed to connect on the front end of a 1-and-1 and D.J. Cunningham missed a shot in the post that could have closed the gap even more.
The Quest for Aggressiveness
For the second time in three games and five nights, Williams zeroed in on his team's aggressiveness, or lack thereof.
"I thought at times we did some nice things and other times I thought UNC Asheville was more aggressive than we were," Williams said.
The eighth-year UNC head coach indicated the best way to correct that problem is to "work at it every day, talk about it and see if we get it."
On Friday night, Minnesota won the floor burn battle against North Carolina, with one particular play ending with three Gophers on the court against just one Tar Heel. On Tuesday, the Bulldogs were effective in knocking the ball out of UNC players' hands on occasion, as well as displaying a willingness to battle for every loose ball.
That's a concept the Tar Heels haven't fully grasped five games in.
"It's all a mindset," Zeller said. "You've just got to be able to – as Coach always says – stick your nose in there and get the loose balls and the rebounds. You can't be afraid to dive on the floor. It's all a mindset and you've just got to be prepared to do it and react to doing it, rather than trying to think about it, see it and then do it."
Freshman guard Reggie Bullock sat out against the Bulldogs to rest his left knee, which was scoped during his senior year in high school.
"I'm concerned, but that's no knowledge," Williams said. "They tell me it's going to be fine. He had the surgery last year. We've been pounding it pretty hard. Again, I'm no doctor, but I think that every time you operate on something it's not quite the same that it was. He's probably worked harder in the four months that we've been going, counting the running program, than he's ever worked in his life. They think he'll be fine, just a couple of days off was really important for him. We'll just have to wait and see."
Bullock's absence forced Strickland (32 minutes) and Barnes (33 minutes) to see more action at the two and three spots, as Leslie McDonald and Justin Watts took turns subbing in relief.